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From Mexico to Alaska, sea stars withered and died, their bodies dissolving into mush, leaving nothing but goo and spines behind. Over the next two years, as geographically diverse populations continued to crash, scientists coined the term sea star wasting disease SSWD to refer to the unexplained forces that were causing the devastation.

SSWD has now laid waste to untold millions of sea stars along the coast, although some areas and species have been harder hit than others. The sunflower star , once an abundant species, is now locally extinct across much of its natural range, from British Columbia to California.

Watch this sea star bounce to get around

To preexisting observations for coastal specimens, the team added data on sea star biomass collected by deepwater trawls done between and —information that covers the population pre- and post-outbreak. For both the deepwater and coastal environment, they link a marine heatwave and a virus , called the sea star-associated densovirus, to the sudden decimation of sunflower stars.

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Although warming ocean temperatures appear to play a role in exacerbating the disease, as more research and data continues to come in, any tidy, unified answer as to what single factor or combination of factors caused SSWD has proved elusive. For different sea star species, varying elements seem to have led to the same disastrous results. Although the virus appears to have spelled doom for sunflower stars, other sea star species are not affected by it.

For them, environmental factors such as drought, pollution, and bacteria are suspected to have played a role.

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But the mass die-off plainly reveals the vital role sea stars play in maintaining balance in their ecosystems. In the past few years, Northern California, for example, has lost 90 percent of its once-vast kelp forests. Sun star with many arms. Sea Stars Reproduce Two Ways. Male and female sea stars are hard to tell apart because they look identical.

While many animal species reproduce by only one method, sea stars are a little different.

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Sea stars can reproduce sexually. The sperm fertilizes the gametes and produces swimming larvae which eventually settle on the ocean floor, growing into adult sea stars.

Starfish (Sea Stars) | National Geographic

Sea stars can also reproduce asexually through regeneration, such as when they lose an arm. Brittle stars Ophiuroidea are a group of echinoderms that resemble starfish. There are about species of brittle stars alive today and most species inhabit marine habitats with depths greater than feet.

There are a few species of shallow water brittle stars. These species live in the sand or mud just below the low tide mark.

Coastal science and societies

They often live amongst coral and sponges as well. They can have up to 40 arms! While you might be most familiar with the five-armed species of sea stars, not all of they have just five arms.

Starfish facts: really they're sea stars - Animal Fact Files